Virtual Reality/environment has been defined by several researchers in the literature for decades, many of them introducing slightly different definition to the term. A common definition is that VR should be regarded as an environment/system where a person was immersed into a computer generated 3D environment that bears quite similarities with reality. The difficulties involved in finding a widely accepted definition of VR has produced a host of alternative terms that some researchers prefer, e.g. synthetic environments, cyberspace, artificial reality, simulator technology.
There are basically three different kinds of VR, categorized by the degree of the immersion that is being provided [Cronin, 1997].
- The first is desktop VR, which is by far the most common and least expensive form of VR there are, which typically consists of a standard desktop computer with stereoscopic capability. This form of VR completely lacks any feelings of immersion on the part of the user.
- Second, a semi-immersive VR system attempts to give the users a feeling of being at least slightly immersed by a virtual environment, which is often achieved by different types of so called workbenches and reach-in displays.
- The third form of VR is usually referred to as being fully immersed. It typically consists of head mounted visual display units that allow users to be completely isolated from the physical world outside. Another form of VR is so-called Cave. A Cave is a room in which the walls surrounding the user produce the images, and thus deliver a sense of immersion.
Not surprisingly, fully immersive VR is generally considered the best choice for several reasons, including the ability to almost completely filter out interference from the outside world and thus allowing user to focus entirely on the virtual environment. However, even reasonable VR hardware and software designed to support full immersion is quite expensive and application development in this area is generally more difficult and time-consuming.
There are several reasons why VR can be useful to deal with aspects that are important in education and knowledge construction. Winn  lists several possible experiences that immersive VR allow. These may all prove to be valuable and important for learning.
- Firstly, VR technology enables changes in the relative sizes of the user and the objects in the virtual environment. On one hand, the user could interact with and even step into atoms and electrons, while on the other hand acquire a sense of distance in the universe by visualizing planets and moons.
- Secondly, the designer of the virtual environment is able to use interface devices to present information that is not available to human senses in a direct and clear manner with the help of multisensory cues presented by immersive VR. For instance, the current level of radiation can be indicated by variations in the intensity of sound, and different places could be given different colors that correspond to the current temperature in that area.
- Thirdly, objects and events that have no physical form in the real world may be visualized by combining aspects of the first and second category.
The skill to work with abstract and multidimensional information is a crucial in today’s society [West, 1991], not only in the academic world but also for large parts of the workforce as a whole. Traditional methods of displaying and visualizing models, data and information, e.g. on computer screens or in books, are two-dimensional even though they describe a reality that is often three-dimensional. VR allows students not only to visualize models and data in a more appropriate three-dimensional context, but also to interact with the models and take on several different points of view. So far, much work within the VR community has focused on applications designed to meet the needs of training and simulation for educational purposes. This field of application includes a vast number of vehicle simulators, such as space shuttles, airplanes, cars etc.; medical training such as surgery and telemedicine; as well as a host of military utilization within combat simulation and group communication and training.
For educational purposes in general, VR has been widely proposed as an important technical tool that possesses an immense potential to facilitate Learning. The arguments are that VR allows students to visualize abstract concepts, to participate in and interact with events that would not be conceivable because of distance, time, scale, safety or money. A further question has been raised as to what extent it is possible to combine a constructivist learning methodology with VR techniques in the traditional paradigm of instructional teaching.
- Cronin, P. (1997) “Report on the Applications of Virtual Reality Technology to Education”, HCRC, University of Edinburgh
- West, T. G. (1991) “In the Mind’s Eye: Visual Thinkers, Gifted People with Learning Difficulties, Computer Images and the Ironies of Creativity”, Prometheus Books: Buffalo
- Winn, W. (1993) “A Conceptual Basis for Educational Applications of Virtual Reality”, University of Washington, Human Interface Technology Laboratory, Washington Technology Center, Seattle, Washington, Technical Publication R-93-9